"What's this?" Tabi knelt outside her apartment door and let her fingers trail over the thickly wrapped package lying in front of it. Looking from side to side, she scooped the thing up into her arms and noticed for the first time the small envelope taped to the side. Her name was written across it in a familiar script. Frowning she shifted the package to one hand and fished in her pockets for keys with the other.
A few minutes later, Tabi sat down at her kitchen table, the package before her. She carefully peeled the tape from the envelope and opened it, revealing a small piece of paper. The same intricate cursive sprawled across the sheet, reading "Just a little present for you" and in place of a signature there was a capital "p". "Phoenix," she murmured aloud. This slightly puzzled her; why would Phoenix send her anything? The two weren't exactly friends and she certainly wouldn't have taken the time to buy anything randomly for him. However, shrugging, she set the letter down and went for the package.
It wasn't very large, no bigger than a hardback novel, and it was wrapped in thick brown paper. A single length of twine held the paper in place. She made quick work of the wrapping and what lay before her made her gasp.
Plainly put, it was a book. Though it was like no book she had ever seen. The cover was black, but not smooth; instead it was covered in deep lines and ridges. When she drew her fingers across it, she nearly imagined them sliding across a myriad of old scars. A shiver slid down her spine, resting coldly at the base. All instincts were telling her to leave the book alone, to shove it back in its paper and give it back to Phoenix as soon as possible. However a sick fascination had crept upon her and even as Tabi stared at the thing in horror, she opened the cover and peered inside. The first page bore a crude drawing of a skull. It leered out at her, done up in some sort of red ink.
Tabi's brow knit, "Phoenix, what kind of present is this?"
Silence followed and it seemed she'd lost several moments because she suddenly found herself delicately turning the pages. They were all so thick, made up of some material Tabi couldn't quite identify, but that didn't exactly feel like paper. She shuddered again. Still she couldn't tear her eyes away from the red inked pages, filled with an unidentifiable language and strange diagrams. Several of the pages contained illustrations, things that Tabi could only call demons and that made her feel something heavy in the pit of her stomach.
Finally with a strong burst of willpower she thrust the book away. Tabi closed her eyes and took a deep steadying breath. After casting a wary eye at the book, she promised herself she'd speak with Phoenix about it soon; then she slid away from the table and headed to bed.
She awoke late that afternoon, head pounding and an odd tingling sensation in her fingers. With a groan, she shoved herself into a sitting position and leaned against the headboard. For a long while she just sat there, rubbing her temples and yawning. Eventually the tingling ebbed and she chalked it up to pins and needles as she wrapped herself in the baby blue comforter. Closing her eyes she willed the headache away and soon it became only a dull throb.
Mouth dry, she stumbled out of bed, heading for the kitchen. On the way, she stopped to check her cat's food and use the bathroom. Upon reaching the kitchen she found the book lying just as she had left it, open to the first page. The skull leered out at her. She shut her eyes and willed herself around the table, for the nearly overwhelming urge to touch the book had washed over her. Only when she had padded around the table and gripped the edge of the sink, did she open her eyes. Much to her amazement tears stung the corners of them and she felt her stomach clench with fear.
Hastily she grabbed a glass from the cabinet and filled it with water. All the while, her hands trembled finely. By the time she'd gulped down half the glass, she was sitting at the table, one hand tight around her cup, the other flipping the pages of the book. Her thoughts jumbled while her eyes darted over the pages, absorbing the horrifying illustrations and glaring red words of the foreign language. Equally she wanted to clutch the book to her chest and chuck it out the window. The thought of either prospect only made her want to do to the opposite more.
Once she had forced the cover closed with a gasp, she sat there breathing heavily for a few moments.
What is wrong with me? she thought, eyes frantically tracing the cover of the book. Every moment that passed seemed to make it look more and more like dark scarred flesh. Ten deep breaths later and Tabi had pulled herself away from the table. She dragged herself across the kitchen, noting the sinking sun through the window and her hand closed around the receiver of her telephone. Dialing the first number she could think of, she tapped her foot impatiently as it rang time after time. Rogue must not be up yet, she thought as she slammed the receiver back into its cradle. Several seconds later though, she'd picked it up again and dialed Phoenix's number. After a few rings, during which time Tabi's dark, umber eyes had locked hungrily on the book, Phoenix picked up.
"Hello?" he said uncertainly into the phone.
"I-" A sudden sweat had broken out across Tabi's forehead.
"Tabi?" Phoenix's voice was even more uncertain now. "That you, Tabi?"
"Nevermind," she snapped and before he could say anything else, she hung up.
A fevered edge to her thoughts, she made her way back to the book. Again she ran her fingers against the cover, almost lovingly as if she thought of the book like some lover's flesh. After another gulp of water, she began to turn through the pages again. As soon as she had come back into contact with the book, the sweat had dried and she felt an odd sense of relief. At the same time, as she earnestly studied the pages once more, she felt a deep repulsion welling up in her. The more she continued the more she wanted to dispose of the book and yet ... she wanted it still. To continue touching it, to look through those thick sheets of whatever a thousand times over.
A desperate, guttural noise erupted from her as her finger slid along the edge of the page and she felt the skin break. The blood welled up in a bright, vermilion drop until it saturated the edge of the page. Wondering why such a small wound could produce that reaction from herself, she stuck her finger in her mouth and stared down at the page. Before her very eyes the tiny red stain of blood began to evaporate.
Suddenly convinced her mind was playing tricks on her, she snapped the book shut. And as that same sheen of sweat developed on her brow again, she groaned, "I'm calling into work."
Rogue rapped his knuckles against her door again. For ten minutes already he'd stood there, knocking, and still no answer. He was starting to feel highly agitated. Finally he gave up on knocking and pulled out the spare key Tabi had given him months ago. When he inserted the key however, he found the door already unlocked. It swung open easily revealing Tabi's living room. A loud meow greeted him from the little orange cat that Tabi owned. "Hello, Rory," Rogue cooed, kneeling for just a moment to pat the kitty on the head. Sliding gracefully to his feet again, he called Tabi's name and began walking farther into her apartment.
Nothing seemed out of place. The living room was still tidy, except for a newspaper lying open on her couch. From there he crossed the threshold into the kitchen. It too was rather clean and he might have left it if not for the smell. It faintly permeated the air, acrid as if something had been burnt. He took a deep whiff of it trying to find the source and his nose eventually led him to her table where two discarded sheets of paper lay. The first was that heavy brown wrapping, which was soaked with the pungent scent. The other he didn't identify as quickly, but the beautiful stylized "P" on it told him volumes.
Rogue reached out and snatched up the sheet. Hazel eyes darted over the single sentence and his expression darkened. What the hell was Phoenix doing sending things to Tabi? Granted he and Phoenix were friends, close friends and he'd never expect his fellow vampire to overly entice his girlfriend. Still the action did not bode well, especially with that sour fragrance still invading his senses. Rogue eyed the wrapping again. What exactly had been in it?
With no answers to his questions, Rogue stalked from the tiny kitchen towards the other end of Tabi's apartment. The bathroom in its pastel pink and blue was empty. He stared in the door, which was lodged open with a few items of dirty clothes, at the most girlish room in her entire home. For a moment it made him smile; it reminded him that beneath that tough slayer persona, she could still be soft and feminine at heart. Breathing deep he could smell the clinging soapsuds of an all too recent shower. Where was she?
Tearing his gaze from the bathroom he moved on to her bedroom. Mostly he expected it to be in the same condition as the rest of the place. It came as a shock then to see the place ransacked.
The full size mattress lay askew of its railings, the sheets torn off and thrown about the room. One drawer had been pulled out of the dresser and its contents lay scattered.
Rogue's jaw clenched tightly as he took in all the damage and he was left wondering "what the hell?" yet again. Worry, laced tight with anger, coursed through him so fast and thoroughly that he had to count to ten almost four times before the feelings were harnessed. Growling, he hurried from the room, snatching Phoenix's letter up from the table before he dashed out. Tabi's apartment door slammed behind him.
"Hey, Rogue." Phoenix's face widened into a grin as he opened up his door.
His grin faded instantly as the words were spit from Rogue's mouth. The vampire shoved a piece of unlined paper under his nose, eyes alight with anger. Feeling rather puzzled, Phoenix took the paper from Rogue and read over it, vibrant ocean colored eyes widening when he was through.
"Where'd this come from?" he asked softly.
"Tabi's," Rogue grumped.
Phoenix stepped away from his door, handing the paper to Rogue again. Once he'd ushered his friend into the place, he said, "I didn't send it."
"Is this a joke, Phoenix?" Rogue's eyes fiercely narrowed. "How do you explain that?" His finger jabbed accusingly into the carefully inked "P".
Phoenix took a moment to wonder why Rogue seemed so positively livid. Even if he had sent Tabi a gift (gag or otherwise) he couldn't imagine his friend so miffed over it. Besides, Phoenix knew their relationship was sound and he'd never taken more than a passing carnal interest in Tabi anyway. In any case, he thought with a sigh, I didn't send her anything.
"I don't know, Rogue. It's a good forgery of my handwriting, but I didn't send it." Phoenix slid comfortably into one of his armchairs, crossing one jean clad leg over the other. His gaze was cool as he regarded Rogue.
"Forgery?" Rogue murmured the word as if it were foreign to him. Then he closed his eyes and kneaded his temples with either hand. "Great ... just great. I'm sorry, Phoenix."
Flashing him a pearly, fanged grin, Phoenix said, "Yeah, does kinda stop you in your tracks, doesn't it, Nancy Drew?" He ignored Rogue's unamused glare. "Don't apologize, though." For once he resisted following that up with a quip over Tabi's "undeniable sexual attraction" to him ... wouldn't that be a good reason for him to send her a gift? Instead he figured the best course of action would not be to provoke his anxious comrade. "So, Rogue, tell me what happened."
Ever so slowly, Tabi's eyes slid open. She winced as pain flooded her from all sides; something bit into her wrists and she could feel telltale signs of the forest floor cutting into her knees. Biting her lip until the sharp, metallic taste of blood rolled over her tongue, Tabi forced the aching aside. It was only slightly subdued when she opened her eyes to her surroundings again.
She was tied by her wrists to two trees in the middle of a crudely cleared section of land. The balmy night air pressed in and sweat beaded on her forehead before trickling into a split over her eyebrow. Tabi hissed. She could barely remember the hours preceding her awakening. There had been the phone call into the twenty-four hour diner where she worked. A shower. More pawing over that book. With a groan, Tabi strained against the ropes, succeeding only in digging them deeper into her flesh. Blood slid thickly from the wounds the ropes had already created. However, Tabi didn't notice this right away, instead her thoughts had grown feverish over the book again. Where is it? she thought frantically, eyeing her surroundings as if she might find it there.
All too soon a voice broke into the agitated rush in her mind. "Well, it's about time you joined us, Sleeping Beauty." The comment was followed by a throaty female chuckle.
Blearily, Tabi's gaze took in this newcomer. Her eyes traced upward from three-inch suede heels, spindly legs, a knee-length deep red pleather skirt, followed by a lace up sleeveless shirt and one of those short-sleeved jackets that ended just below her bosom. Also in red pleather. The woman was standing with her hands on her hips glaring down her long, thin nose at Tabi. And although Tabi knew her face must be a wreck, she glared right back. The woman laughed.
"Who the hell are you?" Tabi ground out between gritted teeth.
Tossing back her thick, blonde hair, she replied, "A friend of a friend, you can call me Valkyrie."
I'd rather call you 'bitch', Tabi thought, but she grimaced and nodded. "All right, Valkyrie. Now tell me what I'm doing here."
"Ah, ah, not for me to tell you, slayer. There's someone else who'd like to discuss that with you." Face twisted in a smirk, Valkyrie shook a finger at Tabi as if the slayer were some naughty child.
Growling faintly, Tabi demanded, "Then get their ass out here."
Another chuckle escaped Valkyrie. "Sorry, hon. But you're in no position at all to be telling me what to do."
"That's all right, Valkyrie, I'm right here."
Tabi's head shot up. Where did she know that voice? It resonated through her mind, deep and somehow soothing despite its graver undertones. In the darkness behind Valkyrie, she could hear someone approaching, their footsteps punctuated by loud crunches on the forest floor. Slowly he came up on Valkyrie's side, laying a hand on the woman's shoulder as he stepped forward. A gasp tore from Tabi's throat.
The pale, strawberry blonde hair was shorter, curling delicately over his ears. But the face had only changed minimally and she knew, even in the semidarkness that his eyes would still be as vivid a teal as ever.
"So you recognize me?" he chuckled.
Tabi's voice rasped softly, "Azriel, what are you doing here?"
He smirked before moving forward and squatting down in front of her. His hand snaked forward and patted the top of her head gently. "Don't fret, love," he whispered, face only inches from hers. The scent of spearmint drifted out with his breath. "I'm only taking care of some business."
"Business?" she uttered lamely.
Azriel patted her again. "That's right, darling. Going to be rid of those pesky vampires once and for all."
"What?" Tabi shook her head trying to clear the haze that threatened to take her over.
With a sigh, Azriel swept his hand through her sweaty, tangled hair before bringing it around to cup her bloodied cheek. "You'll see, milove," he began softly, rubbing his thumb over her face. "A bit of your blood, some death magic ... and the vampires will exist no more."
Her head shot up yet again and despite the fact that a wave of nausea crashed through her, she tried desperately to focus her eyes on his. "Az ... what, you can't..." But her efforts proved futile as she tipped forward and vomited, just missing Azriel.
He groaned and moved away. "Valkyrie, let's get this over with," he commanded, stepping farther away from the gagging slayer.
Tabi hiccupped and winced as she gulped in fresh air and tears fell from the corners of her eyes.
"As you wish," Valkyrie responded. She walked off from their gathering for a few moments before returning with something that grabbed Tabi's attention rather quickly. The book. Valkyrie chuckled knowingly as she watched the slayer tremble and pull one hard time against the ropes binding her. "You want it, don't you, slayer?" Her voice dripped with a nauseating mixture of laughter and malice. "Don't worry, you'll get it."
In the background, Azriel rolled his eyes, apparently unamused with the woman's taunting. But he remained silent and Tabi could feel his gaze shift to her. She wanted to scream at him, figure out why he was doing this. It had been clear in Valkyrie's whole demeanor that Azriel's spiel about only a little blood had been incorrect. The blonde meant to kill her, Tabi simply knew it. However, she could barely think straight anymore, for her mind was racing in all manner of directions. Azriel. The book. Just how in the hell she was going to get out of all this. All the vampires dead. All the vampires. Vampire. Rogue ...
"Rogue!" she gasped, jerking hard against her bonds.
In the time that Tabi's mind had been racing so fervently, Valkyrie had begun reading from the book. Her husky voice lilted with each syllable of the ancient language. Even Tabi, without a supernatural bone in her body, could feel the air grow thick with its cursed magic. It spread over her like a thousand slimy, searching hands. They slid and crawled over her body and she shook violently in an attempt to throw the disgusting sensations off.
Meanwhile, Azriel took one look at his convulsing ex-lover and turned away, hugging himself tightly.
Tabi cried out when the first of those slithering hands clawed into her flesh, blood instantly welling to the surface. Other cuts and knicks followed until she felt as if she'd been set on fire, each wound stinging as air and magic hit it. "Oh, gods," she moaned, tears falling rampant from her eyes now. All these burning tiny cuts were worse than any severe injury she'd ever sustained. Her head swam and her mind worked over time to keep herself conscious. With every fresh trickle of blood she felt the pull of blissful darkness even harder than before.
Then suddenly there was shouting, screaming, Valkyrie was screaming. So many noises, so much sound. Her brain couldn't discern any of it and all it succeeded in doing was pounding around inside her head. The blackness was bleeding into her vision and she knew she couldn't keep up her struggling much longer. Her body couldn't take it anymore; finally she surrendered herself to oblivion.
Dawn was still two hours away, but Rogue could feel it creeping up like an old familiar ache. He sighed softly, resting his chin in his hand and watching Tabi rest a few feet away from him in the hospital bed. There had hardly been any time since he and Phoenix had come upon the gruesome scene in the woods. Some redheaded vampire, who looked creepily familiar to him, and a witch casting dark magic through that ancient Assyrian book. He shuddered. Before he and Phoenix could do anything, the redhead had slain his own accomplice, tearing out her throat with an anguished cry. Then he'd gone tearing off through the woods.
Rogue might have gone after him if he'd not seen Tabi sag against her ropes. Instantly he'd rushed to her side, yelling at Phoenix to forget about the culprit. They would deal with him later. Then, whimpering her name, Rogue had fiercely torn through her bonds. He had gathered her bruised and bloody form into his arms and fought against weeping as he tore through the forest heading where they had left Phoenix's car.
And then ... they had arrived here; the hospital. Phoenix, although he looked genuinely concerned, hadn't waited around. Instead he'd left muttering about "getting that damned book before some other idiot gets ahold of it." Without so much as a word, Rogue had watched him go. He couldn't think of anything else other than making sure Tabi was okay. Already the doctors had taken her away to patch her as best they could. And when a random nurse had come to inquire about the injuries, Rogue couldn't even half-ass a story. He just said she was his girlfriend, had gone missing, and this was the way he'd found her. No, he wasn't going to the police.
Now, he closed his eyes, listening to the steady beeps of the cardiac monitor, hearing faintly the whistle of her breathing. Sighing again, he stood and pulled his chair over to the side of her bed, careful not to tangle it in any wires or hit any of the machines. Then he slid his hand around hers.
Tabi's eyelids fluttered, but her eyes didn't open. "Rogue?" she murmured hoarsely.
"I'm here," said Rogue simply. His eyes locked on her face.
"Wh- where are ..." she spoke only in a whisper, falling short as if it hurt to even finish a sentence.
"Hospital," he quickly replied, "We had to bring you here. You ... you nearly-" But he couldn't bring himself to say it. Instead he used his free hand to tenderly touch the unbandaged portion of her face.
Tabi drew in a sharp breath, still her eyes remained closed.
Rogue winced. "I'm sorry."
"S'okay," she whispered. Although it had hurt, Tabi had longed for nothing more than to feel him near her again. "Tell me ... what happened."
And so Rogue recounted the events so fresh in his mind. When he mentioned the "red haired vampire" Tabi had gasped and protested.
"But Azriel ... he can't ... was my ... slayer...."
"Shhh," Rogue gently pressed his finger to her lips and she fell instantly silent. He did not fail to notice however the tear that slid down the side of her face. Carefully he kissed it away and finished his retelling.
When Rogue fell silent at last, Tabi thought over this new information. Azriel had been a vampire? It seemed near impossible that such a thing could happen. But it must've been true, Rogue could very well sense these sorts of things. And suddenly it made perfect sense. Of course! Azriel ... He had, in truth, been committing suicide. Only he had decided to go out with one hell of a bang. All along he had planned to take Tabi with him, so that they might reunite on some divine plain. She shuddered - It was the reason she had left him in the first place, that eerie obsession that his love had turned into. Several more salty tears pushed through and fell from her closed eyes.
"Tabi," Rogue whispered her name, touching her face again and attempting to squeeze the hand he still cupped reassuringly.
She decided that she wouldn't tell Rogue the things she had realized. It was something she had to keep for herself ... because in the end Azriel had done it all because of her. So instead, she sniffled, opened her eyes finally and said, "I never want presents from Phoenix again."
And Rogue laughed, almost crazily, at the obscenely misplaced humor (and because Phoenix had, in fact, never really sent her that book). Then, kissing her again, he murmured into her ear, "I'll let him know."